That the Prime Minister used her big set-piece speech on Brexit to publicly enjoin the EU to give her the concessions she needs for next week’s vote probably says all we need to know about how she thinks that’s going to go.
If she loses the second meaningful vote (‘MVII’), Theresa May’s stated intention is to proceed fairly swiftly to two other votes: one on whether or not MPs are prepared to endorse a no-deal exit, and one on extending Article 50.
As our editor wrote yesterday, at this point it looks as if any hope of whipping the Government’s notional majority for or against either is long since passed. Either course of action would provoke a fresh slew of resignations – or from Remainers, perhaps, open defiance whilst daring her to sack them – and swell the ranks of blooded rebels yet further.
This last possibility suggests not just that the power of the whip but that of the payroll vote, usually any government’s praetorian guard, has all but disintegrated – and that’s before any further attempt by Oliver Letwin and his co-conspirators to formally wrest control of the negotiations from the executive entirely.
It’s a position of quite extraordinary weakness perhaps unprecedented in British political history, whose proper functioning would previously forced MPs to make a decision about backing or dismissing the Government. Harold Wilson had to play a similar party-management game over Europe, but never was his position as fraught as this.
Shorn of the usual burden of directing the troops, May still has to cast a vote personally. Will she vote for for a no-deal exit, putting her money behind the rhetoric she has employed ever since becoming Prime Minister? Can she vote for extension, knowing as she surely must the price that Brussels will likely exact for it?
There is some talk that May might yet try to win an 11th-hour vote on her deal – MVIII! – but there is currently a real possibility that by that point the process will be, whether de jure or merely de facto, out of her hands. Which raises the question of whether or not she and her remaining Brexiteer ministers would be prepared to remain in office (but not in power) whilst the most important policy decisions this country has made for decades are taken by a parallel executive which will be accountable to nobody.
Of course a general election, which is the obvious and proper resolution to such a total collapse in relations between parliament and the executive, is itself undesirable for all sorts of reasons, not least for Conservatives the prospect of May leading them into it. But it would be foolish, at this point, to entirely rule one out.